Curitiba, Brazilian city of green efficiency

These days, Fernanda hardly remembers the feeling of being stuck in a traffic jam during her daily commute from home to office.

As a resident of Curitiba, one of the largest cities in Brazil’s prosperous southern region, she enjoys a life of easy commutes and clean air.

Thanks to the city’s visionary urban planning, Curitiba boasts an urban environment that dwarves that of many big cities in developed countries.

In the early days, Curitiba’s urban planners foresaw the impact of a growing population and automobile traffic, which was expected to lead to unchecked development and congested streets. Such daunting prospects prompted city officials and urban planners to adopt a new Master Plan, which aimed at building the city in a more sustainable way.

At the core of this plan is a highly efficient public transportation system. Thirty years ago, the city started to operate an unconventional bus service which would later be known as the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. It has since been widely adopted by some major cities in the world as an innovative solution that enhances public transportation efficiency.

Each day, like many other local commuters, Fernanda walks to those tube-shaped bus stations where she can comfortably board the BRT buses that run on dedicated fast lanes.

With the BRT system, Fernanda’s daily commute from home to work takes no more than 20 minutes. If she would drive to work herself, it would take at least twice as long.

"It’s like a subway that runs on the ground, and it’s so convenient and fast that I rarely drive my car these days," Fernanda said.

The BRT is just part of Curitiba’s integrated public transportation system. The idea is to seamlessly connect various bus services into a network, from the minibuses that weave through residential neighborhoods to the BRT buses that run on the arterial roads. In that case, local residents can pay a fairly-low single fare for traveling throughout the whole system.

To promote the use of public transportation, the local government has also adopted relevant policies, such as limiting car access to the downtown area and offering public transportation subsidies to residents.

After years of development, the integrated public transportation system has become the first choice to commute for the city’s 3.2 million residents. As of now, the system consists of 340 bus routes with some 1,500 buses in operation, serving more than 1.9 million passengers every day, according to the local government.

A recent survey also indicated that less than 30 percent of the city’s car owners drive their cars in their daily commute to work. As a result, Curitiba uses about 25 percent less fuel per capita, compared with other Brazilian cities with the same population size.

With lower consumption of fossil fuel, the city can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also create one of the best urban environments in the world.

Now, the local government has started upgrading Curitiba’s integrated public transportation system with a so-called intelligent transportation solution. It has worked with Sweden’s mobile network solution provider Ericsson and Brazil’s largest mobile phone operator Vivo to incorporate 3G mobile communication technologies into the transportation system.

To meet the dual challenges of climate change and population growth, urban planners need to change their approach to urban planning and seek out a low-carbon way of development, said Matilda Gustafsson, sustainability director at Ericsson. She also said an intelligent transportation system will help achieve that goal.

The new intelligent transportation system is expected to be more efficient, and can even function as a hub for the distribution of public information.

This year, Brazil will lead the global celebrations for the World Environment Day on June 5, and host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20. Curitiba’s "green achievement" will no doubt draw attention to the developing countries’ efforts in promoting sustainable development.

"Today, there isn’t a single country that can stand in the way of sustainable development. And that is no small achievement," Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s environment minister, said in a statement delivered before the World Environment Day.